A Walk at Midnight with Mohandas Gandhi
"The past is not dead. It is not even past."
At the Birla Shrine in New Delhi where Gandhi died, I took off my shoes and socks and, as if playing hopscotch, or our native piko of my childhood, traced his, Gandhi's last footsteps.
| I heard in my head three gunshots and felt giddy from vertigo or sunstroke and tottered like a marionette suddenly released.
Slowly, firmly, precisely, I placed one foot after another on the red-stones that Gandhi's followers had set on the garden lawn to mark the footprints of his last walk on Earth before an assassin's bullets struck him down.
When I reached the last footprint, my right foot up in the air, balanced like a dancer's, right where he must have lost his balance and fell on the grass like a ragdoll, I heard in my head three gunshots and felt giddy from vertigo or sunstroke and tottered like a marionette suddenly released.
One of the shrine keepers nearby caught me and led me to where my shoes lay. He helped me put them back on.
It was one of the hottest days in summer.
I returned to my hotel.
Towards afternoon I left the hotel again, to visit his memorial pantheon in another part of the city.
There was nothing much, or big or impressive to mark the hallowed ground. I rememberwhat? An obelisk? A plinth? A slab of marble carved with his name and inclusive dates marking his time on Earth? I could hardly remember.
I recently read somewhere that the plinth-with-a-dome in the Civic Centerwhere King George V's statue was removed in 1947 to give way to a Gandhi memorialwas still empty, 50 years after Independence Day because the powers-that-be could not agree on the kind of memorial to put up.
I reached the pantheon, sat down on a stone bench and contemplated the setting sun. I felt like falling into a deep sleep and was trying to fight it, but only half-succeeding.
Later I noticed him squatting on a straw mat a few feet from me, spinning cotton with the primitive spinning wheel that he was always shown in old stereoscopic sepia photos, or in black-and-white vintage BBC newsreels.
Here, son, give me a hand.
I gripped his strong bony right hand, felt the living veins on his hand and arm, and pulled him up. Now face to face with him I saw his large eyes framed by wire-rimmed spectacles and his saucer-cup ears, reminding me of a gentle tarsier.
He was dressed in his usual dhoti and shawl made from homespun Indian cotton that he wore almost all of his later adult life.
Unmistakably, it was him. Yet, oddly, I was not a bit surprised. I wanted to break the ice by greeting him lightheartedly, "Mr. Gandhi, I presume?" but I was suddenly tongue-tied.
So, remembering the traditional Indian namaskar (or namaste) which I've learned but have rarely tried, I brought my palms together above the heart in greeting.
Come, son, let's take a walk.
And he strode ahead of me as I imagined Ichabod Crane would have walked. This was the man who had walked over much of India.
The sun had started to set behind the horizon, but a residual orange glow stayed on in the west, and the air suddenly cooled, as if air-conditioned. I caught up with him and we walked a few steps in silence until I regained my composure.
Sir, it's been 50 years since that fateful midnight in 1947. I broke the silence.
Fifty years to this day, yes, he said in a low, soft but firm voice.
The same reason I chose this day to come, I said.
So did I. Where are you from?
|One man can only teach the first steps to
a baby, lend a hand, point to a direction. Then, they take over. As your own people
Jose Rizal! He exclaimed.
For a moment I thought he had mistaken me for him!
You knew him, didn't you? You and Tagore and Sun Yat-Sen were contemporaries.
Well, you may say so, yes, but I never really met him, your national hero.
A hundred years later our people are still debating about him.
About himabout what?
About his being "designated" national hero. Like a designated driver.
He did not quite catch on to my attempt at wit.
Tell your people, you get the hero or heroine you deserve.
Then he continued. Your country and mine had almost the same problem. But Rizal, he started it all. We, Tagore and probably Sun Yat-Sen, we all drew inspiration from him.
You and heI pointed out. Each one, the father of his own country.
I'd give the credit to them, to the people, as I'm sure he would haveto his people. Wouldn't you? To your own people? One man can only teach the first steps to a baby, lend a hand, point to a direction. Then, they take over. As your own people did, too. Aren't you celebrating . . . something?
You got your independence?
1946. One year before India.
Wait, you'd have been free 50 years last year, 1996!
We're celebrating 100 years of independence.
I know. Rather, we're celebrating 100 years of the declaration of
Oh, I see. I remember, you had almost routed the Spaniards. But the Norteamericanos
Stepped in the breach. I cut him short and continued, and spoiled it for us. The American president, he had to run to his globehe wanted to Christianize us! We who were Christians under Spain for 300 years! We spent the next fifty years under them, and three more under the boots of Hirohito's army, before we truly became free.
I didn't know how to explain it any better.
Sensing my embarrassment, he went on, Well, son, who am I to question leaders or meddle in their affairs? I don't want to start an international incident.
He chuckled. Let's keep this between us?
Fair enough. I agreed.
We walked on in silence.
How's your country coming along? He asked.
Not too badlybut not too well either.
Just like India. He nodded knowingly. Our two nations, like twins born within minutes of each othernow finally after many centuries, and now well past turning over, crawling, then standing up; only now, we are learning to walk steadily and taking all the falls and bruises in stride. He rambled on and on.
I see you've kept up to date. I said.
| He looked at me with a puzzling reassurance. I proposed, but the people dispose. They took over. He explained, as if to underscore what I was trying to understand.
As much as I could.
What did you think of the Partition?
I pleaded No! The despair in his voice was palpable. I cried, Cut me in half, but spare the nation. I would not know what I would have done if it happened on my watch.
By that time
I'd gone. Thanks to Gods. It would have literally broken my heart.
He paused for a while.
Seeing now what I never wanted and had tried my best to avoid. I sometimes feel that Gods, by dispatching me that day, actually did me a favor.
But things have finally healed, haven't they?
I don't know. He said, I'm still too close to pass judgment. Maybe my reach exceeded my grasp.
But isn't that what a heaven is for?
I only know I tried my best. He looked at me with a puzzling reassurance. I proposed, but the people dispose. They took over. He explained, as if to underscore what I was trying to understand.
The day was darkening. We paused in a corner of the field.
Sir, the day's goingwould you mind signing on this?
I was fumbling in my pocket remembering the 500-rupee banknote which I just got from the bank when I changed my money. I had specifically asked for legal tender with an engraving of his portrait. I was told only this large bill had it. I handed him a Bic pen.
He hesitated for a second and stared at the ball pen as if seeing it for the first time. Quickly, I gave him the book under my armpit to sign it on.
He glanced at the book and flipped through it. It was the latest American University Press title on his life and times, released to commemorate the half-century mark as a free nation.
As he signed the note, I wonder what they write about me now?
I wanted to gift him with the book, but I was too excited about his autograph on the banknote. I realized I could never spend that note. Ever. I'd have it framed and up on my wall. No, maybe buy a safe.
They put my face on this, He mused over the banknote, but the masses never get to see it, much less touch ita note this big. They should have put me on a 10-rupee note.
Maybe they thought it was a higher honor to have it on the highest denomination.
Do you know I never read or saw a copy of your hero's novel?
He was still holding my book.
Noli Me Tangere?
Yes. Great title. He continued, for which the Spaniards blundered into killing him.
I wanted to offer to FedEx him the latest translation of the Noli, but I thought it was going to be "problematic". I quickly dropped the idea.
|I was around during Indira's term. I thought the lady needed some help. I tried to get to her, but I couldn't. Maybe she refused to be helped. In 1984 I was standing between her and her assassin when it happened. I could not lift a finger or raise my voice to save her life!
Sir, you "drop in" quite often?
Only on a round-figure anniversary. Like today.
Would you come on the 100th?
I might, Yet I might not.
Because it's so frustrating.
In what way, sir?
You move freely about and see and hear and know everything, yet cannot lift a finger to help. I was around during Indira's term. I thought the lady needed some help. I tried to get to her, but I couldn't. Maybe she refused to be helped. In 1984 I was standing between her and her assassin when it happened. I could not lift a finger or raise my voice to save her life!
I was engrossed with the 500-rupee note, trying to make sure he signed on it. He did. When I looked up again, he was gone.
I looked around and saw something in the distance. A disembodied dhoti and shawl disappearing in the unseasonable fog, in slow motion, like an ectoplasm, as in a dream, being blown by a gentle breeze on an unseen clothesline.
I was left alone in the dark. I sought the nearest bench and sat down to compose myself.
I didn't know what to think or feel. A daydream? A daytime ghost? But I touched him! Talked with him! And the note! I reached into my pocket and felt it inside and never let it go.
Suddenly, someone was standing in front of me. I looked up, ready to faint. It was the honor guard of the shrine. He held out a book. The book!
I believe this is yours. He said courteously.
You left it at the gate.
In the darkness, I hurried back to my hotel, to my wife. My hand still in my pocket.
When I saw her at the hotel lobby, I pulled out the note and held it out to her, almost in her face.
She was furious. Where have you been all this time? She said through gritted teeth.
Look! I said, waving the note. He signed it!
Waving the note aside irritably from her face, she demanded, Who signed what?
Can't you see his signature? I pleaded.
She snatched the note from me.
There! Can't you see his signature?
She waved the note back at me. You forgot. I said break it. I need small bills, coins, for the laundromat.
No, dear, he signed it.
She brought it up and glanced at it under the glare of the chandelier, then handed it back to me.
Every 500-rupee, she emphasized each word, has Gandhi's signature printed on it.
See? She thrust it close to my unbelieving face.
I looked. And saw. My wife should know, she's Indian.
I never told her about the afternoon's strange encounter. Some things I needed to keep to myself. And believe.
© Alberto Florentino
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